Can Every Christmas Be "Last Christmas"?

Review of Last Christmas
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

Santa Claus has absolutely no place in Doctor Who. Except when he does.

I will freely admit that I was among those fans who cringed and gnashed teeth when Santa showed up in the TARDIS at the end of Death in Heaven. The whole idea that this mythical (if well-beloved) person should exist as an entity as real as the Doctor himself within the Whoniverse just gave me hives.

The comedy-rich pre-credits sequence was, thus, painful to watch (though I do love to see Dan Starkey wearing his own face for a change). And on first viewing, Clara's declaration that she does indeed believe in Santa Claus just adds the cherry to the top of the whole saccharine mess.

After one knows how it all pans out, though... Well, it all fits together nicely.

Note, for starters, that the Doctor never gives Clara an answer when she asks with breathless wonder if being back in the TARDIS with him is real. Combine that with his face-off with Santa before joining her there ("I know what this is. I know what's happening. And I know what's at stake."), and I think it's hard to argue that he's not completely aware for the entire episode that they're all dreaming.

I'm not entirely sure why he felt compelled to walk everyone gently through the realization of what the Kantrofarri (or "dream crabs") were up to, but as I rewatched, there was very little that made me think he wasn't fully aware of the situation. At least three times I can think of, he tried to nudge the polar expedition "team" to recognize the fallacy of their experiences (helping Shona in her inquiry by asking Santa how he got everything into his sleigh, and asking both Ashley and Shona what their mission at the pole was), but the dream was too strong.

The only time that interpretation causes me any trouble is when the Doctor figures out that the Sleepers are the team themselves. ("Do you know what I hate about the obvious? ... Missing it!") I can come up with explanations to make it work, but it irritates me that I need to do so.

Regardless, I thought the overall Inception-style conceit of the episode was well executed, and—particularly when it morphed into full-on nightmare mode—incredibly creepy. It didn't particularly surprise me once I got the first few clues—pretty much as soon as we were told about the dream crabs, I figured out that they were dreaming their escape from the infirmary, and the instant we learned Santa was a mental construct (thank Prime!), I knew Clara and the Doctor had been dreaming since the start. I find figuring things out that far ahead of time smugly satisfying, though, so it certainly doesn't count against the episode in my book.

Perhaps more importantly, Last Christmas was a Christmas special that had very little to do with Christmas itself (unlike the painfully tone-deaf bit from The Snowmen, in which "a whole family crying at Christmas" turned the snow to rain). Yes, it had Santa and Clara's ideal Christmas with Danny, but the former was only the players' subconsciouses choosing the image by which to warn them of their true state, and the latter was apropos to the day and Clara's desires—all perfectly acceptable for the holiday-saturated culture in which we live.

Speaking of Clara's desires, the peek we get into her psyche is intriguing. Throughout the entire story, she's happy to stay in a dream state if that dream is more comforting than reality. She's eager to step back into the TARDIS without a word, she actively ignores the Doctor's chalkboard warnings (I find it fascinating that her subconscious chose that way to represent him) to stay with a Danny she knows isn't real, and she stays with Santa in his sleigh after everyone else has awoken.

Yet she has wise things to tell herself, too. In convincing herself, in Danny's voice, to go on with her life despite her loss, she tells herself—and us—to treat every Christmas as last Christmas. I'm sure there were a multitude of viewers who felt that like a shot to the heart. Given that two years ago, I didn't know whether or not my dad would make it another two months to his next birthday (he is, for the record, still with us), I was certainly among them.

Lest you believe, however, that I thought the entire episode was sugarplums and candy canes, I feel obligated to point out the parts that for me detracted from the whole. To be fair, there weren't many. Aside from my initial Clausian objection, the only other thing to cause an actual flinch was the now-tired "remote locking a historical/animate mode of transport" joke. It was barely amusing the first time around; on the third or fourth go (whichever this was), it's insufferable.

Someone elsewhere on the 'Net pointed out that the way the ending played out, it read like Clara's greatest fear was getting old ("Am I young?"). This commenter extended that, arguing in essence that it was saying that's the biggest horror a woman can face. I can see the point there, but I was able to dismiss it for myself for two reasons. First, it's fairly consistent with Clara's character, as presented to date. She strikes me, in some ways, as very focused on her personal appearance. That's neither good nor bad; that's Clara. Second, the emphasis as I saw it was on whether or not her traveling days were behind her. Clara's old age was, in point of fact, more the Doctor's fear than hers.

On the other hand, I was greatly disappointed that Moffat chose to portray his guest characters as scientists throughout, even emphasizing Ashley's natural penchant for science more than once, before turning around and showing them as having "lesser," more stereotypically feminine vocations. That angered me on a couple of levels, in a sort of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" way. Not only did it imply that women could only playact at science (in their dreams), but inversely that their real jobs weren't good enough for them.

"You don't seem much like a scientist," the Doctor tells Shona, likely trying to suggest to her subconscious mind that her experiences at the pole are contrived. "Well that's a bit rude," she replies, echoing what every woman scientist has thought when we've heard that sentiment over and over and over. Sure, in this case that wasn't her real training—the Doctor was right, good on him—but it upset me that he would perpetuate that stereotype even in such a small way.

I don't want to take away from what was a really strong special, though. In the grand scheme of things (and certainly compared to most Moffat stories), I had very few bones to pick with Last Christmas. It was wonderfully twisted—scary and sweet by turns; there really wasn't much more I could've asked for. Now if only every Christmas (special) could be Last Christmas.

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